Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The liveliest 95-year old catalogue

Our Digital History class has recently been given a fun assignment involving the 1913-1914 Eaton's Catalogue. We were told to choose 5-6 books and see if we could find copies of it online. Around Christmastime I am used to walking through the Eaton's store rather than flipping through its literature for gift ideas (or in this case, clicking through), and I have to say I enjoy the absence of earworm-inducing Christmas music. It's also fun to see what people were buying in the early twentieth century. As we talked about in class, it's interesting to see how many books on Christianity there are, but perhaps not so surprising when we consider that it was published nearly a hundred years ago.

I was able to find the majority of titles I chose on Project Gutenberg, but several escaped my grasp. Google Books has nearly every title but it is hit or miss in finding a complete digitized copy free for viewing. I could not find Husband, Wife and Home which I thought was surprising considering people generally love that kind of stuff for the shocking and/or comical value. In my Gender and European History class last year my prof once mentioned that Isabella Beeton's Guide to Household Management is still being published even though it was originally written in the 19th century for Victorian housewives.

I was successful, however, in finding The White House Cook Book on Project Gutenberg. Old cookbooks are quite fun to look through. Even the titles can be hilarious- my sister and I were laughing recently at one of my mom's that was called something like Healthy Eating with Carbs or The High Carbohydrate Diet- I can't remember what exactly the title was but it was something you'd never see today (and yes, I tried Googling it but couldn't find it!) This one in particular was written in 1887 and has lots of traditional recipes that differ little from modern day cooking. At the back they even provide menu suggestions specific to the month and day of the week. So, for example, you might follow their luncheon menu for a Monday in November: Cold roast duck, welsh rarebit, fried sweet potatoes, cold pickled beets, french bread, cookies, gooseberry jam, and cocoa.

Not too tricky, right? At least it's more appetizing than the Tuesday option of "scalloped mutton," whatever that means. At any rate that's your cooking manual online for this holiday season. My next goal was to find another DIY book but for the home rather than the stomach. I searched the various online repositories for Cements, Mortars, Plasters, Stuccos, Concretes, etc. by Fred T. Hodgson and, as you can see, discovered it on the Internet Archive. It's actually quite interesting looking at the pages on cement and tiling, etc. because at first glance it doesn't seem all that different from present-day work. That being said, I'm sure much has changed in the way of home building materials since 1916.

With all my research on housekeeping I decided to take a break and relax with some fiction. I was intrigued by the title Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper. I found it once again on Project Gutenberg. At first it just seemed like a typical adventure story set in the early history of North America, but after reading the Preface it was clear that there is a strong bias to the book. Writing of how recently the region of Ontario had been settled by Europeans, Cooper states that "a just appreciation can be formed of the wonderful means by which Providence is clearing the way for the advancement of civilization across the whole American continent."

So maybe you should cross Pathfinder of your Christmas list. Searching for something more innocent, I took a browse through the titles under the children's section. The book Wee Macgregor Enlists by J.J. Bell sounded pretty fun (it reminded me of one of my favourite children's books Wee Gillis). I had some trouble finding this title at first. It came up on Google Books (again as a Snippet view) but when I opened up the link I discovered that the original spelling was "MacGreegor" rather than "Macgregor" as on the cover in the Eaton's Catalogue. I'm not sure why they changed the spelling but sure enough a search on Project Gutenberg with the added "e" provided results.

Another interesting feature of the Eaton's Catalogue was the division between girls' and boys' books. For girls, there was a section on "Elsie Books." Not having heard of them before I did a search and found that they were written by Martha Finley (1828-1909) and were based around a girl named Elsie Dinsmore. The titles of the series demonstrates the Victorian ideal of womanhood as revolving around the family: other titles include Elsie's Girlhood, Elsie's Womanhood, Elsie's Motherhood and Elsie's Widowhood.

"Henty Books," on the other hand, were the option for boys and seem to include a much more exciting array of titles. Written by G.A. Henty (1832-1902), the series included At Agincourt and With Wolfe in Canada. Not surprisingly, he displays a clear bias towards the English and against the French in these works but if you get past that in our present day they look like they could be quite fun reads. I am biased myself towards history, of course.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that all these books could be found online, and yet still I remained awed by the powers of the internet. Just the fact that I could look at the Eaton's catalogue online enthralled me. I also liked how Project Gutenberg gave you the option of reading the document online or downloading it. I would say that the one downside with this site was the fact that the page numbers did not match up with the original document. Certainly this flaw would be corrected with the downloaded version but if they give you the option of searching by page number on the online document it should provide accurate results.

I had a lot of fun with this project, and it's certainly given me some ideas for gifts. Not to mention recipes; I'm already craving tomorrow's breakfast of musk melon and calf's liver.

Image Source: Internet Archive.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Now Far From Home

As historians, we are taught to be objective in our understanding and representation of the past. But today I can't be objective, because on Remembrance Day I always end up thinking about the various members of my family who served in the two world wars. I am sure that I am not alone in this feeling. And perhaps we're not meant to be objective today, or on any day that has particular significance for one's own sense of self. The reason I chose to pursue a degree in Public History has a lot to do with a box of letters written during World War One to my great-grandmother from her then-fiancee Gerald Blake. They are a piece of the past that, gradually, have become a piece of me. I can't separate my understanding of these two people from the words on the page, and the sad juxtaposition of love, battle tactics and war-weariness.

My mom and I have talked about doing something with these letters for a long time. As a history student I, of course, was a proponent for somehow making them available to the public. The letters are no doubt intensely personal and romantic but they are also (and here is a bit of a historian's objectivity coming into play) an amazing resource for students and scholars of World War One history. Our only question was how to put it together; what it should look like. And what would they, the protagonists of these letters, have wanted?

An idea has finally taken shape as I have spent these last nine weeks immersed in the Public History program at UWO, and I've decided to begin the project this June, 2010. I'm going to put the transcribed letters up in a blog format exactly 95 years to the day that Gerald wrote these letters. There are hundreds of them and it will take over a year to complete, but after all our discussions on open access content I'm pretty convinced that this is not only the best way to get this story out there, but also what Kathleen and Gerald would have approved of. Interestingly enough, I will also be the same age (22) as Kathleen when she received these letters. The tentative title of the project is "Now Far From Home" (more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I performed a simple Google search to see if anything like this was out there already, and sure enough I was not disappointed. An English man did the exact same thing with his grandfather's letters a few years ago: check out WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier. If possible, I think it would be great to digitize the letters themselves and put them up alongside the transcribed blog posts. I would also include photographs and background information on the people and events described.

I'd love feedback from classmates and anyone who is interested. I think my mother and I know that these amazing pieces of history should be shared. Of course, I am biased in this respect. But like I said, I'm not being objective today.

Though the project would not officially begin until June, I thought that I would include the very first letter. It is written the day after Gerald leaves for France. He and Kathleen were engaged the previous night.

New York
June 19, 1915

Dear Kathleen,

I'm a pretty sad little devil today and philosophy doesn't help much. I hope you're all right my dear. I felt wretched leaving you looking so wretched and so we're pretty wretched all round. But some day if I hadn't gone we all would have been ashamed. I would have been a grouch for the rest of my days- and now perhaps I will be only half the time!

I am alternately proud and humble. I'm so proud of your really loving me that my head's nearly turned right around back to front- and I feel so weak and unworthy that it makes me very serious.

I'm afraid I'm a very poor sort of a lover my dear. I can't express all the beautiful things that are inside. I'm just struck dumb. I haven't an idea what I said to you- only I felt most immensely and I expect you know what I wanted to say.

I feel like a little lost child at one moment and the next like a King. You know I feel that I'll come through all right now that I managed to tell you before going. You know I'm a shy little coward and it took an awful effort.

Do take care of yourself, my dear, and don't get glum. Heaps of love to you,


PS: By the way, I didn't tell anybody anything- tho' I felt like shouting to everybody in the street the fact that you loved me. You tell anybody anything you like- or everybody everything you like. I'm your humble servant. Excuse my incoherence- I'm in a chaos.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Bounty of Information on the Mutiny

For our Digital History class we have been asked to write a blog entry on how to research a historical topic on the web. I deliberated over what to write on, but eventually I settled on the story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty that took place in the late 18th century. Often lauded as the "most famous
mutiny in history," the tale of adventure on the high seas, exoticism, romance and treachery has certainly captured my imagination ever since I was a kid. After reading Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall I was, like so many others, captivated by the story.

For those who do not know the history of the HMS Bounty and its voyage, Wikipedia is of course an option but a far better site is the site Fateful Voyage. This page is a fantastic resource as it includes an extensive history, biographies of the crew members, transcripts of the Bounty's logbook and other primary source documents relating to the voyage. As well, the author makes great use of tools like Google Earth to create maps that show the routes of both the HMS Bounty before and after the mutiny, as well as the voyage of Bligh and his faithful crewmembers in the ship's launch. There is also a rich timeline that is colour-coded and broken down by month and year detailing the major events of the story. For anyone wishing to start a similar site, the author includes the resources that he or she found helpful in constructing the more complex elements like the maps and charts. Other useful pages for an introduction to the topic include the site of the HMS Bounty, the reconstruction of the ship built for the 1962 movie starring Marlon Brando. It gives an introduction and information on the ship (you can also book a berth for its next voyage if you so desire). Finally, Paul J. Lareau's site includes a basic overview as well as links to other pages, photographs and articles that answer the question, "who was at fault?" You can even check to see if there is a 'Bounty organization' in your country, region or city.

For those looking to view primary sources there are a number of sites that provide digitized versions. The State Library of New South Wales website is one example. Specific pages include the papers of Sir Joseph Banks and a section of the ship's logbook from Tahiti to Jamaica. You can also see the account that Bligh himself wrote about the voyage in the Bounty's launch from modern Tonga to Kupang on East Timor. The British National Archives are another good resource for primary sources. Visitors to the site can view a couple of pages from the Bounty's logbook.

While Bligh and his faithful crew began their seemingly impossible sail to Timor, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers headed in the opposite direction. They eventually settled on the small island called Pitcairn east of Tahiti where they would live out the rest of their lives and create a settlement whose descendants still live there today. The National Maritime Museum in Britain website includes a digitized copy of the register of the mutineers who settled on the island. This document was written by a whaler who visited the island in 1823 and recorded the story told to him by the one surviving member of the crew and the descendants of his peers. The website for the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre is also a useful resource for those who wish to know more about the island's history. It also includes a cruise ship schedule for those with a mind to visiting the site itself. You can also take a look at the Pitcairn Island website for historical information as well as photographs and information on what the people of the island are up to today.

Now, I wouldn't be a Public Historian-in-training if I didn't mention the ways in which the Bounty story is alive today (aside from the proliferation of interest on the internet). Check out an article on the Pitcairn Project, the archeological expedition in 1999 that uncovered the wreck of the Bounty, or take a look at the Bounty Boat Expedition, a reenactment of Bligh's open-boat voyage by an Australian crew of four set to launch in 2010.

And finally, for those movie buffs out there, take a look at the YouTube trailers for movies on the Bounty story. The first, Mutiny on the Bounty, was filmed in 1935 and is based on Nordhoff and Hall's book. The 1962 remake stars Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. It's interesting to notice the differences between these epic, swashbuckling accounts and the more angst-ridden trailer for The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in 1984. As we discussed in our Public History class recently, our interpretation of historical events changes over time, and these two trailers are an example of how we as interpreters of that history become part of the overall narrative of that event. It's interesting to think about how we would interpret the story of the Bounty in the 21st century. Perhaps there would be more of a focus on the Tahitian people as more than just an exotic playground for the European explorers?

The links I've provided here are really just an introduction, but show how much this story is still alive today, and changing once again with the possibilities of the web.

Painting: Gordon Miller, Bounty's Arrival at Tahiti, 1788. Source: Sailing into History